A Moral Test for Maryland Legislators

By The Right Rev. John Bryson Chane and the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton
Sunday, January 11, 2009

As the Maryland General Assembly prepares to convene on Wednesday, we hope that legislators will decide against the death penalty in Maryland. Not doing so would represent an enormous moral failure for the state and for civil society.

For decades, many religious groups have voiced strong public opposition to capital punishment, believing that every human being is given life by God and that only God has the right to deny life. Of course, we understand that the state must seek justice and prosecute wrongdoing, but we cannot condone the state pronouncing a sentence of death for wrongdoing -- no matter how violent and brutal the crime. There is simply no moral justification for the state to execute a child of God in the name of justice.

The Episcopal Church has carefully studied the application of the death penalty in many states. In every case, it has concluded that the death penalty is unjust and ineffective. It is immoral to any who are seriously committed to the ethics of Jesus, who continually forbade violence as a means to solve problems caused by evil. It is unjust because of the hugely disproportionate number of poor and black defendants who receive the death sentence. It is a sad truth that many who are wealthy in our society are able to "buy" their way out of being executed by the state. When it comes to the death penalty, true justice comes with a price tag: "Justice paid is justice won." It is ineffective in that it has never been shown to deter the commission of violent crime, nor has it lowered the murder rate in any state that regularly executes its most violent criminals.

Does killing its citizens help a state to build the nonviolent, just and civil society that we desire for ourselves and our children? State-sponsored killing can be called many names, but it is also revenge -- and where one seeks revenge, there is little room for forgiveness. Quite simply, a criminal justice system based on revenge is a system marred with the consciousness of violence. To kill as the revenge for the killing of another contributes to the cycle of killing in a society. One only has to look at the daily news headlines to know what happens to whole societies and nations that use violence to rectify violence.

Most likely today someone in the nation's capital and in Maryland will die under violent circumstances. Understandably, we will all be outraged at the senselessness of the carnage, and there will be public cries to kill the perpetrator. But the test of love is not found in doing the loving thing whenever it is easy to do so. Love is doing what is right precisely when it is hard. Jesus taught his followers to go beyond an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, for that would inevitably lead to what Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called "an eyeless and toothless society."

In the civil rights era, Christians, Jews and friends from every creed and color took the words of love and reconciliation to heart and employed those principles of nonviolence to battle hate and murderous violence. Nonviolence is still the most powerful weapon that we have to deter social evils today -- more powerful than the electric chair, more effective than a lethal injection. We are not going to kill our way out of a culture that is awash in violence. That is why we implore the state legislature and governor to believe in that power once again and reject the death penalty in Maryland.

-- The Right Rev. John Bryson Chane


-- The Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton


The writers are, respectively, the Episcopal bishops of Washington and Maryland.

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